Children of Eden Page 44

I tell him I had no idea it was such a big deal. The way Mom presented it, other second children had gotten black market lenses before.

“Some have,” he says. “But they’re not very good. They give the visual appearance of first child eyes, and some can pass a basic identity scan, but no one has ever managed to make lenses that bind fully to the neural networks, that are good enough to fool any Center official or securitybot or the EcoPan itself. If the rumor is true, this man can. I need to find him, and get the lenses he has ready for you.”

I feel a momentary qualm. My mom gave her life so that I could live like a first child. My only chance of being normal is to have those lenses. Then, somewhere above my head, a family is waiting to take me in. Is that even still possible? Do the authorities know too much for the original plan to ever work?

I bow my head. Of course it could never happen. And I have the Underground now. It’s not what I had planned . . . but then, what is? Of course I can give up my lenses.

And then I realize what this means, and to my shock I find myself upset. “You mean, you are going to have the lenses for yourself?” I ask. “You’re going to pass as a first child and live aboveground in Eden?” Unspoken are the words while I stay down here, trapped again. I wouldn’t admit it aloud, but already a small part of the appeal of living here in the Underground is that Lachlan is a citizen. I don’t want him to go.

“We have a plan to infiltrate the Center at the highest levels. It has been in the works for years, and everything is in place except for the last component—the lenses. Once I have those, there is a place arranged for me with an inner circle family that is deeply sympathetic to our cause. There’s a place for me at Oaks Academy.”

I give a quick intake of breath. That is the most exclusive school in Eden, just for the children of Center officials. Ash goes to a really good school . . . but Oaks Academy is for the truly elite of Eden.

“Believe me, it took every bit of blackmail, bribery, and threats we in the Underground possess to set this up. Flint is going crazy because he’s used to taking point on all of our operations. But this is a long-term plan that needs someone to get close to Eden’s top families, and there’s no way he can do that. And obviously he’s far too old to go to Oaks. But when I get into Oaks Academy with my cover story, I’ll be in a perfect position to get at the Center—through their sons and daughters.”

It makes sense. An adult like Flint can’t just appear from nowhere, but a young man, a supposed orphan moving in with relatives, could insinuate himself more easily into that social milieu. Lachlan is charismatic enough to do it, I think.

But part of me has been building vague fantasies of friendship here in the Underground, and I don’t want to lose him this fast. It makes no sense, but I suppose now that I don’t have anyone of my own I’m more prone to cling to the few connections I make, even if our acquaintance is only a few hours old. I like him, to be truthful. He alternately annoys and enchants me. I want to know him better.

“Tomorrow night, after sunset,” he says. “For now you can learn more about us, and then get plenty of rest before we set off.”

I’m nervous about venturing up into Eden again, and anxious about what I learned about Aaron Al-Baz, but before long I find that the people of the Underground have a soothing effect. I feel instantly at ease with all of them. At home, even. The talk ranges from simple, even trivial topics—my favorite foods, curiosity about the latest fashions above-ground—to impassioned discussions of politics, equality, and freedom. I’m shy and closemouthed for a while, but eventually the air of calmness surrounding me allows me to open up.

Lachlan comes and goes, checking on me periodically to make sure I’m doing okay. Every time I see him I want to pull him aside and tell him what I’ve found out about Eden’s founder. But every time, he leaves before I can overcome my uncertainty. It’s so huge—blasphemy! But he, and Flint, and all of Eden should know the truth.

I’m just talking with an elderly man about deeper caves beneath the camphor tree cavern that might have challenging rock faces to climb, when an alarm pierces my ears. I look around frantically as the deafening noise assaults me, but I can’t see any danger.

All around me, though, the aura of calm instantly evaporates. Those happy soft people are all at once hard and focused. Weapons appear from nowhere. People are running here and there, taking up positions, crouching, aiming . . .

“What’s happening?” I ask, grabbing Lachlan’s arm as he races past.

“Get down!” is all he has time to say before he races off to a nook in the cavern wall, slings a long rifle over his shoulder, and begins to scale the camphor tree.

I still don’t see any danger, but the wailing, pulsing sound of the incessant alarm is drilling into my head. I’m not going to stay cowering on the ground. I don’t know where to run, so I make a quick decision and follow Lachlan up the tree. Instinct says to climb.

He looks surprised to see me following him, but not angry. I wish I had time to enjoy the climb. It is so different from the rock face that it takes me a while to find my rhythm. Near the base I climb using crevices and knots in the trunk. Higher up I have to wrap my arms around thick boughs and shimmy, and then higher still I wrap my legs around limbs and climb with my entire body. It is exhilarating, exhausting.

High in the canopy, not far from the crystal roof he stops, wedging himself in a crook. He gestures with his eyes to a similar spot a little higher up, and I climb there as he settles himself low against the branch, clinging with his thighs as he props the rifle at an angle, aiming toward the main entrance. I can see the doors easily through the leaves, but anyone on the ground would have a hard time singling me or Lachlan out. He has the perfect sniper position.

The Underground is primed for battle . . . but nothing happens except that the dreadful alarm finally shuts off. Lachlan holds his position for another five minutes, and I bite my lip, waiting.

Then there’s a second alarm, a softer repetitive buzz. I see Lachlan’s tense shoulders relax.

“All clear,” he says. “Soon you’ll be given your orders for defense drills, but you did well. You kept out of danger, out of the way, and you can act as a spotter from up here. Good job.”

He slings the rifle back over his shoulder and starts his descent. I follow—and going down is much harder than going up.

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